Making Racism History

St. Louis Blues

On a dormant Saturday morning in downtown St. Louis, you're much more likely to encounter a klatch of bejerseyed hockey hooligans than you are to stumble on a band of itinerant historians giving local business moguls the business. But a mighty righteous smattering of Ph.D.s is just what you'd have found if you ventured into Luther Ely Smith Square on April 1.

This park is an ideal site for a rally, bounded as it is on one side by the Gateway Arch and on the other by the Old Courthouse, where the Dred Scott case (which denied blacks the right to sue in court) was first heard in 1847. The park also abuts the embattled Adam's Mark Hotel—the target of the weekend's protests.

The Organization of American Historians (OAH), an otherwise sleepy contingent of scholars, made news recently when it uprooted its annual convention from the Adam's Mark after learning that the Justice Department, the Florida attorney general, and a group of black hotel guests had filed suit against it, alleging that the St. Louis-based chain discriminated against blacks. In the last decade, the Adam's Mark has been sued several times for racial bias and has been ordered to pay more than $5 million in penalties.

On March 21, after a protracted struggle in which Adam's Mark CEO Fred Kummer, who has a reputation for intransigence, repeatedly denied the allegations, the company settled the suits for $8 million—$4.4 million of which went to the guests. Another $1.5 million went to scholarship funds for four historically black colleges in Florida. Though the company admitted no wrongdoing, and none has yet been proven in court, it agreed to subject all 9000 of its employees to diversity training.

Despite the settlement, OAH president David Montgomery and a handful of his colleagues joined a group of St. Louis dignitaries— including James Buford, CEO and president of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, and Jerome Reide, director, Region III, of the NAACP—in staging two rallies and a march to "Make Racism History." While the march was fairly well attended (about 300 people), neither rally attracted more than 60 people.

Jeffrey T. Sammons, a professor of history at NYU and the driving force behind the OAH pullout, said, "I am disappointed in the turnout. It was revealing. Kummer made it easy for some to retreat to the safe world of scholarship."

Though the OAH originally risked paying $425,000 in penalty fees for pulling out of the Adam's Mark at the last minute (a sum that could have crippled the organization), loopholes in the contract may mean they'll only pay the hotel somewhere between $56,000 and $146,000. They'll also owe an additional $20,000 to $30,000 to St. Louis University, where the conference was hosted instead. Some of that debt has already been defrayed by aggressive fundraising efforts made in St. Louis. Also, in thanks for the stand the organization took on racism, two OAH award winners, Timothy B. Tyson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Walter Johnson of NYU, offered to reinvest their cash prizes in OAH coffers.

According to Montgomery, the mood of the conference was "very upbeat"—which it was, but then most members who opposed the organization's tack either didn't convene in St. Louis or weren't willing to protest after the fact. According to the OAH, 1875 people attended this year's conference, up from last year's 1763, but down from 1998's 2050.

Still, it seemed clear that not everyone at the OAH was happy about the proceedings. Rumblings of discontent surfaced about the dangers of politicizing a professional organization—the concern being that boycotting the Adam's Mark would set a costly and perhaps debilitating precedent. Such misgivings must have intensified when Montgomery told rally attendees: "From now on, we're going to make sure that we know, in every place we go, what the local inhabitants have to say about that city, its hotels, and places where we may meet."

But after all the hoo-ha, when the Adam's Mark had been duly spurned, the rallies amounted to little more than back-patting sessions: they rang slightly hollow after the settlement—especially since, while the converted preached to each other in the park, numerous black guests in the hotel lobby, some of whom told me they had stayed at Adam's Mark hotels before, said they felt they'd always been treated fairly, and would stay there again. They seemed undeterred by the goings-on outside.

 
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